It has been more than 21 years since the Hartford Whalers played their last NHL game and said their goodbyes.
Skip Cunningham remembers the day well, and not fondly.
“I was in denial,” he said.
So many were. That said, Sunday will be an emotional day as the Carolina Hurricanes don the green Whalers sweaters for their game against the Boston Bruins, once their most hated rival. It will be “Whalers Night” and the trappings of the game at PNC Arena will have a throwback, retro feel as the Canes honor the franchise’s past and its many years in Hartford, Conn.
Team owner Tom Dundon calls it a fun idea. The crowd should be large and lively and a lot of Whalers-related merchandise should be sold.
Cunningham, born in Boston and raised off Brookline Avenue not far from Fenway Park, is an equipment manager with the Hurricanes and a tireless worker, and his tenure with the franchise the longest.
He started his work in 1972 soon after graduation from Northeastern University, when the team was the New England Whalers, their league the World Hockey Association and their home rinks the Boston Garden -- when the mighty Bruins weren’t scheduled there, or the Celtics -- and Boston Arena in their first season. Then, on to Hartford.
Cunningham was with the team when the National Hockey League granted the Whalers admittance in 1979 during the merger with the WHA. He once laid out the jerseys, with what became an iconic emblem and logo, for the likes of Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon and a young Ron Francis.
On April 13, 1997, Cunningham was one of those who collected the Whalers jerseys for a final time after the game against Tampa Bay at the Hartford Civic Center. He washed them, boxed them up.
An era was coming to an end. They all knew it. Owner Peter Karmanos was moving the team, somewhere.
“You’re in disbelief that ‘This is our last game,’” Cunningham said.
Tears were plentiful in the arena that day. And anger. And resentment.
John Forslund was there. The Canes’ television play-by-play man, he handled the last telecast, describing the action as an early goal by defenseman Glen Wesley and late one from Kevin Dineen, the team captain, gave the Whalers a 2-1 win.
Some had hoped the Whalers, coached by Paul Maurice, could extend their season by reaching the playoffs. But after a run of injuries and some losses in the final week of the season, they fell two points short of qualifying. That, too, stung.
“It was an extremely emotional time,” Forslund said. “It was in many ways bitter. I understood all the ramifications, the political ramifications, the building leverage, the decision that was being made and the hurdles that the market had in terms of the business footprint and all that stuff. They had roadblocks they couldn’t get through that led to the decision.
“But once the decision’s made, that’s when the heat of the emotion takes over.”
Forslund joined the team in 1991. In 1994, a group headed by Karmanos, the Detroit software executive, bought the franchise, which many Whalers fans believed -- and many still believe -- was a death knell for the team remaining in Connecticut.
Karmanos did move the team. Unable to get a commitment for a new arena from Conn. governor John Rowland, he decided to relocate the franchise after the 1996-97 season.
“Mr. Karmanos came by one day and said we’re moving, this is over, but we didn’t even have a place to go,” Cunningham said. “It’s like we were on an island.”
A prospective ownership group in North Carolina had made a bid for an NHL expansion franchise, with plans to share a new arena to be built near N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium. That fell short and the bid withdrawn, again with political haggling over the arena a stumbling block, but Karmanos liked all that he had heard about Raleigh, about the Triangle, about the largest TV market in the country without a major-league team.
While an official announcement about the relocation to Raleigh was not made until May 1997, everyone at that Whalers-Lightning game in April had the sad acceptance that history was being made. Homemade signs dotted the stands -- one said “You’ll Always Be Our Team. We’ll Follow U Wherever U Go.”
Forslund, who lived in Springfield, Mass., said driving to the game that day was surreal, that it was overcast and that a black cloud appeared to be hovering over the Hartford Civic Center when he arrived.
“I remember going on the air that day and saying, ‘Good afternoon everyone, it’s the meaningless game with tremendous meaning,’” Forslund said. “I was proud how we did it. I was proud of the presentation we gave it, with some tough circumstances.
“It was pretty good game. At the end we had no idea how it would go with the fans. And the fans were celebrating. Celebrating the memories. Many of them were crying. But it was also joyous and the standing ovation went on for a long time.”
Dineen spoke to the fans. The players then left the ice for the locker room but returned after pulling off those Whalers jerseys one last time.
“I never thought I’d see them again in a game,” Forslund said. “I thought they’d been put away for good. Over time they’ve become a darling of collectors and a romanticism attached to it. I’m not 100 percent sure all of that existed then although we had passionate fans in Hartford.
“The colors are cool. They’re different. It’s a marketing thing here. I get it. I understand why we’re doing it but I have mixed emotions about it because I went through that -- the attempt to save it, working there from 1991 to 1997, then to see it change.”
Some Canes fans will have the same conflicted emotions: it’s a Carolina Hurricanes regular-season game and they should wear Canes sweaters, as they have since 1997. At the same time, it‘s something different and a way of embracing the past with the retro uniforms.
Wesley, whose No. 2 jersey hangs in the PNC Arena rafters, tweeted Saturday: “The Whalers jersey belongs in Hartford, not Carolina. If you want to do it right, play it outdoors in Hartford vs Boston/Rangers. That would be the right thing to do for Whalers history.... “
Karmanos, while the Canes’ majority owner, forbade mentioning the Whalers or the past after the move. Team records were designated “since relocation” although that stance softened after Francis returned, first as a player and then a team executive, having set so many of the franchise marks.
Not everyone mourned the end of the Whalers. Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour, asked Friday about his Whalers memories as a player, said, “Beating them most of the time.”
And the Hartford Civic Center? “I didn’t really enjoy that place,” Brind’Amour said. “Kind of a dungeon, in the locker room.”
Nine years after the move from Hartford, Brind’Amour and the Carolina Hurricanes were lifting the Stanley Cup as champions.
Cunningham, on his day with the Cup, took it back to Boston. He carried it up to the Green Monster at Fenway Park. He carried it to three of the arenas that the Whalers once played in -- the Boston Garden, Springfield Civic Center, finally the Hartford Civic Center. He cherished the moment.
And now what once was unthinkable, a team wearing Hartford Whalers jerseys, the Hurricanes, his team, will take the ice again Sunday in an NHL game.
“It should have been done a long time ago but there was so much animosity,” Cunningham said. “I think the players are excited about it. And the thing you can’t deny is how long the team was in the NHL. And all the Hall of Famers and all the future NHL coaches that were in the locker room.”
And Bob Gorman. Another of the Canes’ equipment managers, Gorman was with the Whalers, as well.
After more than two decades, the Canes’ ties to the community are deep. Francis, the Canes’ former executive vice president and general manager, remains an investor in the team. Chuck Kaiton, the unmistakable radio voice of the team from 1979 until this year, remains in Raleigh.
Brind’Amour, in his first year as head coach, has no problem with the team wearing the Whalers uniforms Sunday and again March 5 in the game in Boston, which should be another emotional setting.
“It’s a pretty neat idea and now that I see them, they’re pretty cool colors,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to see it every day but it’s a neat thing, to bring back tradition. It’s not Hurricane tradition but it’s where this organization started.
“I really don’t have a lot of memories of the Whalers. I don’t remember the song, to be honest with you.”
The Whalers’ goal song was “Brass Bonanza.” It, too, will be played Sunday when the home team scores.
“If we hear it then, it’d be great,” Brind’Amour said.